OK, white Americans, listen up

One of the things I like about Kevin Ollie, UConn's men's basketball coach, is his unapologetic use of "black" English, his native dialect.

However, decades after linguists had shown that the idea is nonsense, I still hear complaints that black English is "ungrammatical." If you are inclined to think this is true, take a look at the following two sentences:

1) Man, these kids done a great job, and while I don't mean no disrespect to State U, our kids, they just got more heart than any other team.

2) Man, this kids have did a great job, and while I don't mean some disrespect to State U, our kids, they just gotten more heart than any other team.

You can immediately pick out which one is actual black English, and which one is a mangled imitation of it, right? You know why: because you've heard black English your whole life, and you know its grammar perfectly well. And that grammar is just as regular as that of "white" English, which is why it is easy to see when someone is writing or speaking it incorrectly. So cut it out with, "Why doesn't he learn to speak properly?" OK?

Common sense in business cycle theorizing

Someone attempting to understand the Great Recession was asking Bob Subrick and me about Austrian business cycle theory. We both agreed that it is a part of the story, but only a part.

I woke up the next morning and went online to find Tyler Cowen saying the same thing. Is common sense gaining ground in discussing business cycles? Surely, The real world being complex and all, many different processes are occurring in the economy at the same time. Distorting interest rates is going to do something. One question is, how much impact does it have? Another question is what other factors are also at work?

How to run a panel

At conferences I have attended, I've seen this done two ways:

1) Each presenter gives their paper. Then each discussant comments on the paper. Then there is a Q&A period.

2) Presenter A gives her paper. Discussant A remarks. Brief Q&A on that paper. Presenter B gives his paper. Discussant B remarks. Brief Q&A on that paper. Presenter C gives... etc.

In my experience, method two is preferable in almost every way: It keeps the balance between presentation, discussion, and Q&A intact, whereas method one tends to let steps one and two run on and leave no time for Q&A. it puts the discussion of a paper immediately after the paper which makes it easier for listeners to connect the two. And then the Q&A immediately follows on a paper just presented and discussed, rather than on one presented an hour before.

So why do we see method one followed so often? Is the one disadvantage of method two of which I am aware: method two is more burdensome on the chair of the panel.

You Know You Are in the Country When...

* Every single employee at the local McDonald's is white.
* Instead of your broiled scallops being "lightly brushed with a pear and Tuscan olive oil vinaigrette," they are "barely afloat in a lake of melted butter."
* The dating site ads on TV are for "FarmersOnly.com."

Appeal to Authority

Is, of course, only a fallacy when the person appealed to is not really an authority on the topic in question, e.g., "Even the Pope says Python is a great programming language!"

The other day I saw someone defending this sort of appeal by saying it is a form of probabilistic reasoning: "If the experts agree that X is Y, then X probably is Y."

Someone who refused to go along replied, "History argues strongly against that principle: see geocentrism, phlogiston, and ether."

Think seriously about this for a moment: it is wrong to say that the experts are usually correct, because this fellow can come up with, over all of human history, three times when the experts were wrong!

No doubt we can come up with more, many more. But for every such example, I'd bet we can come up with a thousand where the experts have been found correct. The problem, in fact, is that the experts are so overwhelmingly correct that we really only notice the occasional situations in which they are wrong.

UPDATE: As Tom points out in the comments, it is also a fallacious appeal to authority to use an authoritative opinion as a premise in a deductive syllogism:

P: Brian Kerighan says Python is a great programming language, therefore...
C: Python is a great programming language.

I did not mention this case because I almost never encounter it: the appeals to authority I see on the Internet are usually done in a marshaling of additional evidence for the truth of some point.

Let Them Play

We saw it again tonight at the end of the Tennessee-Michigan game: The referee calls a charge in a crucial situation, and a bunch of people start complaining that the referee should just "let them play." The refs "should not be deciding the game."

I don't understand with the people who say this want: The referee should never make a call in the last few minutes of a close game? Then the game will be decided by whoever is willing to foul most viciously. The refs should suddenly change how they're calling the game in the last few minutes and only call very blatant fouls? Then, just how much they change may "decide the game."

How about this: how about the refs just call the game consistently throughout, using their best judgment? So, you know, if it was called a charge five minutes into the game, it is called a charge with five seconds left in the game.

Has the NSA thought of this approach?

Instead of getting defensive about the wiretapping thing, turn it around, and make it a marketing slogan:

We are the NSA: We listen to our citizens!

The Worst Get on Top

Monarchy is an interesting possible solution to Hayek's problem of why "the worst get on top": the monarch had to make no effort to get on top except that of getting out of the birth canal. And history lends this notion some support: of course, there have been very bad monarchs, but I don't think the worst of them approach Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot.

Sortition, of course, is another possible solution.

Just wishing that "Everyone will stay at the bottom and so no one will be on top!" on the other hand, is not much of solution.

Circe's bewitchment

"When they reached Circe's house they found it built of cut stones, on a site that could be seen from far, in the middle of the forest. There were wild mountain wolves and lions prowling all round it- poor bewitched creatures whom she had tamed by her enchantments and drugged into subjection. They did not attack my men, but wagged their great tails, fawned upon them, and rubbed their noses lovingly against them. As hounds crowd round their master when they see him coming from dinner- for they know he will bring them something- even so did these wolves and lions with their great claws fawn upon my men, but the men were terribly frightened at seeing such strange creatures. Presently they reached the gates of the goddess's house, and as they stood there they could hear Circe within, singing most beautifully as she worked at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colours as no one but a goddess could weave. On this Polites, whom I valued and trusted more than any other of my men, said, 'There is some one inside working at a loom and singing most beautifully; the whole place resounds with it, let us call her and see whether she is woman or goddess.'

"They called her and she came down, unfastened the door, and bade them enter. They, thinking no evil, followed her, all except Eurylochus, who suspected mischief and stayed outside. When she had got them into her house, she set them upon benches and seats and mixed them a mess with cheese, honey, meal, and Pramnian but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pigsties. They were like pigs-head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do; but their senses were the same as before, and they remembered everything.

"Thus then were they shut up squealing, and Circe threw them some acorns and beech masts such as pigs eat, but Eurylochus hurried back to tell me about the sad fate of our comrades. He was so overcome with dismay that though he tried to speak he could find no words to do so; his eyes filled with tears and he could only sob and sigh, till at last we forced his story out of him, and he told us what had happened to the others." -- The Odyssey, Book X

The Flight from Reality

The truth must not be mentioned:
George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at the way the term is used by those who try to portray gays and lesbians as deviant. What is most telling about substituting it for gay or lesbian are the images that homosexual tends to activate in the brain, he said. “Gay doesn’t use the word sex,” he said. “Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does.”
Homosexuals are different from heterosexuals in terms of who they wish to have... sex with, right? But per Lakoff, it is not cool for the words we use to describe this fact to include the letters "sex" anywhere.

Love Makes the World Go Round

"And wise men tell us that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by partnership and love, propriety, moderation, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of things by the name of Kosmos, not of disorder or dissoluteness." -- Plato, Gorgias

The Utopian Sorcerers

"The character of a magician is not forced on the activist by thinkers not sharing his dream. The symbolism belongs to the activist's language of self-interpretation. The better minds among them are quite proud of the magical character of their enterprise and of their position as sorcerers. Hegel speaks of his System der Wissenschaft as the attempt to find the Zauberworte and the Zauberkraft, the magic words in the magic force, that will determine the future course of history by raising "consciousness" to its state of perfection. Marx, who understood the magic component in Hegel's System only too well, resumes from Goethe the alchemistic symbol of the Superman when he wants to characterize the change in the stature of man to be achieved by revolutionary action. And Nietzsche, finally using the same symbol, is proudly explicit on the force that will secure the Superman's advent. In a famous passage of Dur Wille zur Macht (749) he writes: 'The charm (Zauber) that works for us, the Venus eye that fascinates even our foes and blinds them, is the magic of the extreme...'" -- Eric Voegelin, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme," in Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 324

The Nature of Utopians

"A Utopia [in modern discourse] still means the model of a perfect society that cannot be realized because an important sector of reality has been omitted from its construction, but its author and addicts have suspended their consciousness that it is unrealizable because of the omission. I am speaking cautiously of a suspension of consciousness, because it frequently is difficult, if not impossible, to determine in the case of an individual activist whether the suspension is an act of intellectual fraud or persuasive self-deception, whether it is a case of plain illiteracy or of the more sophisticated illiteracy imposed by an educational system, whether it is caused by a degree of spiritual and intellectual insensitivity that comes under the head of stupidity, or whether it is due to various combinations of these and other factors such as the desire to attract public attention and make a career. Whatever the individual case may be, the suspension becomes manifest in public as the professed belief that the unrealizable image of perfection can be realized." -- Eric Voegelin, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme," in The Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 316

The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

"if a group deviates in the current generation from the mean social status, set at zero, then on average will have deviated by a smaller amount, determined by b, in the previous generation. A group of families now of high social status have arrived at the status over many generations by a series of upward steps from the mean. And the length and speed of that ascent, paradoxically, are determined by the rate of persistence, b." -- Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises, p. 215

This is a perfect example of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." In reality, what we have our particular, concrete individuals, members of families, doing this in that in the world, and succeeding or failing to some degree or another. From a large number of such individuals, Clark has devised a model of changes in social status. Within that model, there is a parameter, called b, which is determined by the average speed of assent or decent in social status among family members. It is these actual, concrete activities that make b what it is. But Clark gets this exactly backwards: for him, this abstract entity, b, is somehow controlling the actions of real-world individuals! It is like thinking that a baseball player's batting average determines how often he will get hits, as if somehow a number on the TV screen can influence his swings, rather than how often he gets hits determining his batting average.

Once you become alert to this sort of error, it is really shocking how often one finds it committed, and by very intelligent people. (We saw, for instance, Daniel Kahneman treating "regression to the mean" as if it were some sort of control of real world events.)

Historical falsehoods that won't die

* The Roman Empire collapsed due to barbarian invasions. (It actually gradually faded away, and most of the barbarians were immigrants, not invaders.)

* In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held back the growth of science. (In fact, only in Catholic Western Europe did modern science develop, and it is now well-established that it was in the Middle Ages that its foundation was laid! And it developed at Church-related institutions, such as the universities.)

* Columbus had to triumph over critics who thought the world was flat. (All educated Europeans knew it was round: think of Dante's character in The Divine Comedy, moving through the spheres of Hell and then coming out on the other side of the world.)

* Bishop Berkeley did not believe in the existence of an objective, knowable world outside the human mind. (He made asserting the existence of such a world a cornerstone of his philosophy.)

* Rousseau's ideal human was the "noble savage." (He never used the phrase, and certainly did not hold up primitive people as a paragon of perfection.)

* Adam Smith taught that markets work by the operation of an "invisible hand." (He only used the phrase three times in all his works, and never to refer to the operation of markets in general.)

* Hegel believed that history culminated with his thought. (He did think he was "the dude" so far, but accepted that others in the future would go further.)**

* Scientists in the 19th-century turned away from religion due to new scientific findings. (The turning-away was almost entirely political in its source.)

* Neville Chamberlain was a cowardly appeaser who, if he had just had a little resolve, could have stopped Hitler in his tracks early on. (No, he could not have.)

** Having been reading on Hegel the last two days, I must say that Hegel himself is certainly a problem here: although he explicitly says that thought so far has only going as far as him, as he was not completely mad, there are passages that seem to imply that history does culminate in Hegel himself.

Anarchy in Ancient Egypt

The First Intermediate Period saw the collapse of central government in Egypt. How did this work out? Here is a poem from that time:

To whom can I speak today?
(One’s) fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
Hearts are rapacious:
Every man seizes his fellow’s goods.
(To whom can I speak today?)
The gentle man has perished,
(But) the violent man has access to everybody.
To whom can I speak today?
(Though) a man should arouse wrath by his evil
He (only) stirs everyone to laughter, (so) wicked is
his sin.
To whom can I speak today?
Men are plundering;
Everyman seizes his fellow’s (goods).
To whom can I speak today?
The foul fiend is an intimate,
(But) a brother, with whom one worked,
has become an enemy.

Pretty much as usual, we could say.

The abstract and the concrete

"Say goodbye to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities!" -- William James in a letter to Bertrand Russell

Did you realize...

That you can't contract "I am" unless it is followed by another word? I didn't, until a Lithuanian friend just texted me "Yes, I'm."

The funny nature of language rules: no native speaker would ever break this rule even though probably few people know it is a rule in the sense of being able to state it explicitly.

Oy! You Just Try to See What the Facts Indicate, and Here Is What Happens

So, I am reviewing Gregory Clark's The Son Also Rises. While doing so, I occasionally report what I find in the book on this blog.

Many of Clark's findings are surprising to me. For instance, I had no idea that French-Canadians have constituted a persistent underclass in the US for a couple of centuries. So, I report this, expressing my surprise. (Aren't you surprised by this finding as well?)

Well, I occasionally look to see who is linking to my posts, and look what I found as a link to that one:

“A group of racists and xenophobes discovers that French Canadians have been discriminated against for 200 years and feels shocked.”

1) OK, first of all, what is the "group" referred to here? I was assigned a review of this economist's book. I have never met him, never spoken to him, never corresponded with him... but now, apparently, we (just the two of us?) constitute a "group"... and a "group of racists and xenophobes," to boot!

2) Clarissa apparently already knew French Canadians were discriminated against. Evidence, please?

3) There is no evidence that French surnames in general were “discriminated” against: it is not French surnames, but only French Canadian surnames, that show this persistent underclass pattern. Does anyone really think that the average American knows which is which, so that they can continually discriminate just against the French Canadians, but not against the French? Can you differentiate a typical French-Canadian surname from a typical French surname? I know I had no idea which was which, until I learned how Clark sorted them out.

4) The same data shows that, say, Egyptian Copts, Indian Hindus, and Black Africans have readily entered the elite in the US, and in much higher numbers (proportionately) than the average American: is Clarissa arguing that Americans discriminate in favor of Egyptians Copts, Indian Hindus, and Black Africans, but against French Canadians?! Really?

The idiocy of identity politics is its own refutation.

I Am That I Am

Weather Report Suite, Part II:

"What shall we say, shall we call it by a name
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin
Water bright as the sky from which it came
And the name is on the earth that takes it in
We will not speak but stand inside the rain
And listen to the thunder shouting
I am, I am, I am, I am" -- John Perry Barlowe and Bob Weir

The thunder shouting "I am": the revelation of pure actuality.

Survival of the Elitist

"It is also interesting that Darwin's fourth-generation descendants include Adrian Maynard Keynes and William Huxley Darwin..." -- Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises, p. 135n

No, those names are not coincidental: the Darwins, Keyneses, and Huxleys were inter-marrying.

A Good Example of How Historical Reasoning Works

I'm going to quote this one at length. It is from the same atheist author I linked to in my previous post. It is part of a longer explanation as to why essentially no serious historians of the first century Middle East, be they Christian, Jew or atheist, think that Jesus was a made-up figure. But it is also a very good example of how historical reasoning works.
But probably the best example of an element in the story which was so awkward for the early Christians that it simply has to be historical is the crucifixion. The idea of a Messiah who dies was totally unheard of and utterly alien to any Jewish tradition prior to the beginning of Christianity, but the idea of a Messiah who was crucified was not only bizarre, it was absurd. According to Jewish tradition, anyone who was "hanged on a tree" was to be considered accursed by Yahweh and this was one of the reasons crucifixion was considered particularly abhorrent to Jews. The concept of a crucified Messiah, therefore, was totally bizarre and absurd.

It was equally weird to non-Jews. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful and abhorrent of deaths, so much so that one of the privileges of Roman citizenship is that citizens could never be crucified. The idea of a crucified god, therefore, was absurd and bizarre. This was so much the case that the early Christians avoided any depictions of Jesus on the cross - the first depictions of the Crucifixion appear in the Fourth Century, after Christian emperors banned crucifixion and it began to lose its stigma. It's significant that the earliest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus that we have is a graffito from Rome showing a man worshipping a crucified figure with the head of a donkey with the mocking caption "Alexamenos worships his god". The idea of a crucified god was, quite literally, ridiculous. Paul acknowledges how absurd the idea of a crucified Messiah was in 1Cor 1:23, where he says it "is a stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the gentiles".

The accounts of Jesus' crucifixion in the gospels also show how awkward the nature of their Messiah's death was for the earliest Christians. They are all full of references to texts in the Old Testament as ways of demonstrating that, far from being an absurdity, this was what was supposed to happen to the Messiah. But none of the texts used were considered prophecies of the Messiah before Christianity came along and some of them are highly forced. The "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah 53 are pressed into service as "prophecies" of the crucifixion, since they depict a figure being falsely accused, rejected and given up to be "pierced .... as a guilt offering". But the gospels don't reference other parts of the same passage which don't fit their story at all, such as where it is said this figure will "prolong his days and look upon his offspring".

Clearly the gospel writers were going to some effort to find some kind of scriptural basis for this rather awkward death for their group's leader, one that let them maintain their belief that he was the Messiah. Again, this makes most sense if there was a historical Jesus and he was crucified, leaving his followers with this awkward problem. If there was no historical Jesus at all, it becomes very difficult to explain where this bizarre, unprecedented and awkwardly inconvenient element in the story comes from. It's hard to see why anyone would invent the idea of a crucified Messiah and create these problems. And given that there was no precedent for a crucified Messiah, it's almost impossible to see this idea evolving out of earlier Jewish traditions. The most logical explanation is that it's in the story, despite its vast awkwardness, because it happened.

Giordano Bruno Was Not a Martyr to Science

For one thing, he was no scientist.

But, "for those who prefer simple slogans and caricatures to the hard work of actually analysing and understanding history, Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question."

See more here, and learn that Neil deGrasse Tyson's history is as badly mangled when he does a major documentary as it is when he does a podcast.

NOTE: The author of the post I link to above describes himself as "an arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard." The debunking of the "Church as the foe of science" myth has not been a project of solely, or even mainly, Christian scholars. It is simply the work of serious historians, many of them non-believers, finding out what actually occurred in the past. If you think something like "The Church held back science for hundreds of years," you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

A mysterious event

At about 1 AM this morning, someone spilled a bunch of paint in the lobby of my building. They also got a streak of paint on the door.

Can anyone offer a plausible explanation of this? Someone was about to do a bit of late night painting, had an accident, and decided "Ah, forget about it!"?

Offer your explanation in the comments.

The First Law of Archaeology

You are digging in some ruins. You find a mysterious object, and you are uncertain about what it is or how it was used.

The answer is easy: it was religious! (This is sarcasm, and, the link is to a very good blog on the historical method.)

Interestingly, I was just listening to a lecture about an instance of this error of "punting" and explaining anything mysterious you dig up as religious. It seems a couple of 19th-century archaeologists from northern Europe had written a good bit about all of the ruins recently found in North Africa that were used for ritual sacrifices. This was going along swimmingly, until someone from Mediterranean Europe took a look, and said, "Oh, those things: those are olive presses. The peasants around where I live still use the same sort of structure."


I was reading Larry White's chapter on The Road to Serfdom from his The Clash of Economic Ideas.  (Looks like a very good book, by the way.) I was struck again by how libertarians and socialists are usually talking past each other when they discuss "capitalism."

White notes that many on the left regarded fascism and Nazism as a "capitalist" reaction to the rise of socialism. Hayek disputed this, and said that both movements had more in common with socialism than with capitalism.

Well, what does one mean by "capitalism"? If you mean an economy with very little government involvement, then Hayek is certainly correct: the fascists and Nazis were perfectly willing to intervene heavily in the economy.

But if by "capitalism" one means "that system of political economy being supported by those who own capital," then the socialists had a point: these movements certainly had the support of many business owners, who thought it was better to be directed as to how to use their capital than to simply have it taken from them.

The Bhagavad-Gita: the importance of one's role

I have noted before that the libertarian contention that statists think state actors are exempt from ordinary morality is just plain wrong. Different rights and duties are attached to different social roles. What is "kidnapping" if done by a stranger is "taking your kid for a trip" when it is done by a parent.

This is ancient wisdom: in fact, the Bhagavad Gita is largely about the connection of morality to one's social role. Its application to those tasked with governance is straightforward.

My Wife Is Away, So I Am Having an Evening Full of Romance...


Watching French TV while studying Italian on my phone.

Odd Ad

Buick is running an ad the point of which seems to be to convince the viewer that the Buick Regal has a really lousy navigation system.

Checking white privilege

One way to gauge the social status of an ethnic group is to see how the proportion of doctors in the group compares to that of the population as a whole. Of course, this is not flawless: for instance, in the case of Filipinos, I think it must overstate the status, as this seems to be a people that just loves the medical professions. (So, for instance, the percentage of lawyers among Filipinos is going to be much lower compared to the US average than it is for doctors.) But, it is a good rough gauge nonetheless. And in The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clark uses this gauge, by looking at the surnames of registered physicians in America.

So what the ethnic groups top the doctoring US charts? Here they are, starting with number one:

And the top doctoring award, for producing physicians at thirteen times the national average, goes to...

1) Coptic Egyptians

The runners-up:

2) Indian Hindus (about twelve times the average)
3) Indian Christians
4) Iranian Muslims
5) Lebanese Christians
6) Ashkenazi Jews
7) Sephardic Jews
8) Koreans
9) Chinese
10) Filipinos
11) Black Africans (we've reached about four times the average here)
12) Greeks
13) Armenians
14) Japanese
15) Vietnamese
16) Black Haitians

So, what do we find among the top 16 doctor-producing groups in the United States? No European Protestant groups. Not one.

Another fascinating fact I learned: Do you know what ethnic group has been in the US for roughly 100-250 years (depending upon the family) and has remained persistently underclass that entire time? See if you can guess in the comments. (Obviously the time frame I give is wrong for African-Americans, so that can't be the answer. And the high end of the range above is a hint.)

Social mobility was just as high in medieval England as it is in the US today

"In terms of social mobility, then, what did the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution achieve? Very little." -- Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises, p. 75

Or in modern Sweden, or modern England.

Knowledge and Coordination and Business Cycles

By me and Andreas Hoffman, is now available in Studies in Emergent Order.

Dear high school teachers

Instead of badgering your kids about into not using Wikipedia, perhaps you could spend some time teaching them the difference between "loose" and "lose"?

Economics for magically endowed people

This is a sort of voodoo store taking up a large corner retail space on a fairly busy street in my neighborhood. As I was walking by it today, I thought, "I never see anyone in there: I wonder how they pay the rent."

Then I realized, "Doh! The owner just makes the landlord believe he's paid the rent."

Siri: A Barrel of Laughs

What I said: "famous urban advocate Jane Jacobs"

What Siri wrote: "famous Bourbon addict Jane Jacobs"

Yes, I Know It's a Pitch, But...

Things I have learned from the TV show Crossing Lines

1) Top-flight computer experts keep the only backup of years of coding work on the exact same computer where the code itself is stored.

2) Foreign languages aren't really spoken on a regular basis. For instance, if two Italians, or two Slovenians, are talking, they will speak 80% of the time in English, and only switch into Italian or Slovenian for short spurts, apparently to add local color to their conversation.

3) If you have access to the GPS chip on someone's phone, you can easily figure out where they are. But apparently this utterly fails when they are within your plain sight, a hundred yards away. No, instead you must let them get several miles distant from you, and then only catch up to them at intervals of 20 or 30 minutes.

4) Donald Sutherland no longer reads his own lines. A Donald-Sutherland-simulating script-to-speech AI now reads them all for him.

5) In Poland, it is "really starting to snow" when there are a couple of flakes drifting to the ground every minute, the kind of "blizzard" that lays down a quarter of an inch in a couple of hours.

School teachers: Wikipedia is often better than your textbooks

The horror wikipedui felt by many of our K-12 teachers, which is reported to me frequently by incoming freshmen at my college as well as my own children, continues to dismay me.

Here is a case where Wikipedia could easily be used to correct a textbook from a major education publisher. Other instances include the number of senses humans possess (far more than five), or the number of basic tastes we have (five, not four). My children were still being taught the long-abandoned numbers around 2005!

So teachers are using textbooks filled with fallacious material, and warning kids off one place where they might easily get it corrected.

History: It Is a Collection of Rumors I Have Encountered!

Neil deGrasse Tyson apparently feels confident in discoursing on history without bothering to look any of his "facts" up.

One reason I note this is because several times I have pointed out this type of thing in reference to people who are trying to attack Christianity with bogus history. However, in this case, NDT believes he is defending a Christian accomplishment, but it turns out he simply has no idea what he is talking about. Almost every single "fact" he offers is untrue!

It is as though NDT was doing a documentary on physics based on misremembered material from a high school class, theories discredited decades ago, and snippets culled without discrimination from the popular press, and didn't think there was any point running any of the material by any actual physicist before presenting it.

As Renaissance Mathematicus notes, NDT could have significantly improved the factuality of his account simply by consulting Wikipedia for a few minutes! One would think, before going on the air to misinform a million viewers*, a narrator might bother to do at least that.

Moral: Whether they seem to favor "your side" or oppose it, you simply cannot believe the historical "facts" offered in the popular media without confirming them in the work of a real historian who specializes in the area in question. Oh, and middle and high school teachers: it is much, much better if your students consult Wikipedia for their history than that they cite the nonsense they are liable to find in documentaries or on newsstands.

UPDATE: I have been prompted to re-check the post I link to above, and I realize I got the source wrong: Neil deGrasse Tyson says this in a podcast, not on Cosmos, which I implied was where it was said (though I never actually explicitly said it).

* I have not checked his actual viewership: "a million" here should be read as "very, very many."

Currently under review

At Callahan and Company, book reviewers:

The conflict between writing more and getting in the best journals

I was talking over Skype with a co-author today, and he remarked, "Well, if our paper does not make it in Journal X [our first target], perhaps we should submit to Journal Y?"

I replied, "It is very nice to be thinking ahead, but my papers always are accepted by the first journal I submit them to, so there is no need to worry."

While I was joking around and this isn't quite true, it is nearly so. And that got me thinking: A lot of people, upon hearing this, would conclude, "Gene, you're not shooting high enough: if you are always getting accepted by the first journal you submit to, there is a very good chance you could've been accepted by an even better journal if you had only tried there first."

I think this is probably true. But I have a very hard time acting on this advice; my attitude is always "Let's get the damn thing published and get on to writing something else." I find the idea of spending my time trotting a paper around a circuit of journals for several years soul crushing.

The Desolate Wastes

An Instruction on How to Get Better Is Not a Threat

Imagine a drug addict goes into a therapist's office and asks for advice.

The therapist says, "Given your condition, you're going to have to check in to rehab for three months. It's the only way you're going to get better. Otherwise, you are certain to be dead within a year."

The addict re-acts by saying "What?! You're threatening me with death if I don't follow your 'way'?"

Of course, that is not what is going on at all. The therapist, an expert on these sorts of problems, is just trying to give the addict a realistic view of the situation he faces. And the situation the addict faces is not of the therapist's making.

Well, that is closely analogous to the doctrine of salvation through Christ. Everyone of us is in a bad state. We cannot get out of it by our own efforts. But an expert "therapist" comes and offers us a way out.

That is not a threat, but an offer of help.

Worst "Error Message" Ever?

So, I am trying to dictate some text, and I hit "Fn Fn" like I usually do to start Siri "listening," and the computer goes "Boop."

That's it: no message, no start of dictation, just "Boop."

Luckily, I knew enough to look in the console for error messages. Couldn't tell what they meant, other than "Time for a reboot."

But really, Apple, "Boop"?

Very close

Right under your feet, in fact.

The Strangeness of "Homophobia"

In a way, one has to appreciate the ironic jujitsu that took place in creating the word "homophobia": homosexuality had been classified as a mental illness, but now the tables could be turned: any criticism of homosexuality would henceforth be classified as a mental illness, a "phobia."

But what is odd about this maneuver is that this is a mental illness that is "treated" by unrelenting moral condemnation. If someone goes crazy when sealed in a box, we excuse their behavior by saying, "Well, they are claustrophobic, after all." We might recommend therapy, but we don't taunt them in public discussion by saying, "You vile claustrophobe!"

But should someone say, "I find Aquinas's case for the sinfulness of sex outside of traditional marriage to be convincing," they are told they are both mentally ill, and morally blameworthy for their own mental illness. This means that on the one hand, the "homophobe" cannot use rational argument to defend their position: of course the mentally ill have all starts of rationalizations for their weird behavior, but it is best not to listen to them, correct? They are all just "excuses." On the other hand, there is no reason to stop feeling morally superior to "homophobes": it is the special mental illness that is also a free moral choice!

Upcoming Circeronian Society Conference Schedule

Misplaced Concreteness

"I think of organizations as a group of people sailing in a stream of ideas. Sometimes they're sailing in swift, clear streams where the ideas are abundant, but sometimes they are in stagnant pools or terrifying whirlpools. At other times, one persons idea stream fork off, splitting them apart from other people and taking them in a new direction. To me, this is the real story of community and culture. The rest is just surface appearance and illusion." -- Alex Pentland, Social Physics, p. 44

It is very easy to get entranced with one's own abstractions. What Pentland has here is an interesting and apparently useful abstraction modeling an aspect of the flow of ideas in society. But that is not enough: Pentland has to believe the he has captured "the real story of community and culture."

Note one thing left out of Pentland's abstraction: the ideas that are flowing in this "river" have no content. In fact, that is a necessary maneuver for his mathematization of these flows. Which is all fine, as long as one remembers that it is a mere abstraction. In fact, contentless "ideas" are an impossibility, and certainly ideas would not be flowing through society except for their concrete content, which, therefore, can hardly be "appearance and illusion." 

Hot Hand Redux-ux

Researchers have found that a basic assumption made by Tversky et al., that shot selection is random across ranges of difficulty, is false:

"When players heat up, as a rule, they take much worse shots."

Mountaineering record eludes me

I once swam for 35 miles. That took some doing, but I thought I might also add a mountaineering achievement to my athletic successes.

So, this weekend, I attempted to set the record for the most mountaineering movies watched in a row.

But before I reached the peak, my brain began to swell with mountain / life metaphors, and I found myself coughing up "achieving the summit" clichés.

At risk of succumbing to "High Attitude Sickness," I was forced to return to base camp.

Perhaps going out tonight was not your decision

"With common colds we found that total interactions, and nighttime interactions, increased: People seem to be calling on their friends after work hours." -- Social Physics, p. 146

Maybe it was actually that virus infecting you that decided to go out this evening.

The tolerance of "liberals"

I inquired of a left-wing friend, "What if a Muslim photographer is asked to photograph a drunken pagan orgy involving ritual sex with a statue of Mohammed built out of pork? Does he have the right to decline?"

He answered, "If the orgy is not breaking any laws, no."

Ah, the freedom to crush the conscience of others!

Is Secular Liberalism the Future?

Pretty obviously not, given that every society that becomes secular immediately begins committing demographic suicide.

Yes, Virginia, Groups Choose

One of the central tenets of methodological individualism is often stated as, "Only individuals choose."

Well, of course it is possible to simply define choice as something only an individual can do. And if one does that, well, what is there to say? But empirically, we can clearly differentiate between individual choices and group choices:

"The ability to work as a group is older than humanity. For instance, mountain gorillas decide when to end an afternoon siesta by using 'close call' signals. When everyone in the group has been heard from, and the signaling reaches a certain intensity, then the rest period is over. Likewise, capuchin monkeys use trilling sounds to cooperatively decide when and where the troop should move...

"Similar patterns of social decision making are common in many animals and virtually all primates."

Alex Pentland, Social Physics, pp. 62-63

It is simply not the case that a gorilla choosing individually when to stop eating leaves is no different than the gorilla troop deciding to end their siesta. "Group decisions" are distinctly, empirically different from individual choices. And it takes years of training in methodological individualist dogma to become unable to detect the difference between choosing to go to a movie and happening to find a number of your friends there, and choosing as a group, with your friends, to go to a movie.

House of Cards

It had been recommended to me for some time, but when I started watching, I saw Kevin Spacey talking to the camera, and turned it off immediately. I hate that crap.

However, my son was watching it tonight, and so I began watching it again. It is not bad. Despite the talking to the camera.

What I found really hilarious while watching, however, is libertarians who think, "Wow, this is such a libertarian show!" Because politicians behaving badly.

People close to power become greedy for power. If anyone had ever thought it worthwhile to make a TV program about the behavior of the CEOs of ancap defense agencies, we would see them behaving just like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Cause that's what people are like when they are around power. Whether there is an entity called "The State" around or not.

Isn't it a bad sign...

When your local Ethiopian restaurant spells Ethiopian wrong?


Is texting other people from the same table during your brunch date:

Neither of these two even put down there phones to eat. And the couple of times they spoke, they held the phone just to the side of their face: "You may speak, but you better know that you're interrupting something important."

No Elephantological Individualism for Them!

Very interesting article, but what caught my eye:

"After decades of observing wild elephants—and a series of carefully controlled experiments in the last eight years—scientists now agree that elephants form lifelong kinships, talk to one another with a large vocabulary of rumbles and trumpets and make group decisions..."